Shooting for the Moon
all in favor of public support for caregiving, but the rationale
for this proposal comes out of a world I don't understand. Anne
Alstott and I must live on different planets.
On her planet, parental love is "a
social creation as much as a natural phenomenon." Society needs to
motivate them with carrots and sticks. Hence caretaker resource
On my planet, parental love is
about the most natural and fiercest emotion there is. Most parents
desperately try to protect their children from such dangerous social
creations as crime, drug rings, violence as entertainment, violence
as recreation, junk food as national cuisine, and toxic living
conditions as the lawful norm. Parents would be helped by a few more
sticks wielded at these threats to child development.
On Alstott's planet, if
society didn't place a No Exit obligation on parents, a lot of them
might abandon their children. On my planet, most parents would sooner
harm themselves than abandon their children. On her planet, parents
take good care of their children in large part because if they don't,
"the state revokes or curtails their parental prerogatives." On my
planet, parents regularly curtail their own prerogatives to expand
their children's opportunities.
On Alstott's planet, it's largely
thanks to legal and social institutions that parents tend to make
good choices for their children. On my planet, legal and social
institutions are often the biggest obstacles to good parenting. The
requirements of work-rigid schedules, long hours, showing up no
matter what, and physical presence in the workplace-are antithetical
to the requirements of parenting-constant availability, physical
presence in the home, attentiveness, and putting the kids first. The
rules of public assistance prohibit low-income mothers from taking
care of their own kids instead of working for pay, virtually require
them to put their kids in somebody else's care, and pay them-pay
mothers-to take care of somebody else's kids, for pitiful wages
and no benefits. How perverse is that?
Our planets orbit around the
same sun, to be sure-the universal human desire to infuse children's
lives with warmth, energy, growth, and happiness. We both think the
state should help parents fulfill their altruistic yearnings. But
where I live, caretaker resource accounts wouldn't do the job.
Caretaker resource accounts embody the
conservative approach to many social problems: give people a meager,
stingy, absolutely fixed pot of resources and let them choose how to
spend it. Then wax eloquent about how you're giving them "options"
and "autonomy" and "freedom of choice," and isn't that what all
right-thinking citizens want really? The magnanimous benefactors of
these meager resources emphasize all the things the money might
possibly buy-if it could be spent seven times over. Never mind that
the still-poor, albeit sovereign, consumer is more focused on which
necessity he or she will choose to do without. Medicine or food? Heat
or clothing? Child care or retirement income?
This is the same strategy that would
replace Medicare with medical savings accounts; replace Social
Security with personal retirement accounts; replace defined-benefit
pension plans with defined-contribution plans. It is the strategy of
employers who cut back their employee health benefits, then give
employees a choice between two or three plans, none of which will
cover enough. It is the strategy behind replacing entitlements with
fixed budgeting, and replacing a commitment to meeting needs with a
commitment to meeting budgets. Somehow, people are supposed to feel
good even when they come out with the short end of thestick, because
they had the freedom to choose between several bad options.
Alstott's proposal is well-intended.
It is, after all, a scheme to expand entitlements, not to undo them.
But I'm not persuaded it will accomplish a smidgen of what it's meant
to do. Encourage "continuity of care?" The accounts certainly don't
provide any incentive (as if economic incentives and moral commitment
have anything to do with each other) for parents to stay married or
get married or remain involved in their children's lives day in and
day out, for the money goes to only one parent, no matter what the
behavior of the second parent.
The accounts are supposed to enable
women to devote more of their time to parenting and to choose a bit
more autonomously between full-time work, part-time work, stints out
of the workforce, or full-time mothering. Realistically, low-income
women will have no choice but to keep working as hard as ever to pay
the bills; if they use their accounts for anything, it will be child
care. If they choose to rely on relatives or very inexpensive day
care, they may devote their allotments to retirement as Alstott
intends, but they might also see the nest egg as a cruel taunt: "I've
got all this money waiting for me if I live long enough to be a
great-grandmother but I can't use it to be a better mother now." What
about education? I can already see Wal-Mart and McDonald's starting
to charge tuition for their management-trainee classes, now that
their employees are sitting on a fat checkbook they can't use for
If we really want to enable people to
earn a living, improve their education, save for retirement, and
raise children, there are better ways to do it: raise the minimum
wage, pass more living-wage laws, fund better public education at
every level, give people who do unpaid care work entitlements to
Social Security and other assistance, make health insurance
universal, enforce health and safety laws, and reform the entire
culture of work to recognize workers as people with families.
Of course, I'm shooting for the moon. Alstott's
proposal has the virtue of staying down to earth. <
Deborah Stone is a research professor of government at Dartmouth College and an independent scholar. She is at work on a book called Help: The Good Samaritan in American Life.
Click here to return to the New Democracy
We Owe to Parents.
Originally published in the April/May
2004 issue of Boston Review.